It’s a sullen January morning and I’m shivering in a Scottish bird hide. Binoculars jangling around my neck, I snuggle into my thermal layers, prop my elbows on the ledge and peer out of the peephole. The marshy plain sweeps in a sheen of grey-green towards the estuaries of the Solway Firth, a silver sliver beneath the wide steely sky.
I imagine I’ll have an hour of searching this picturesque emptiness with dwindling hope that something, anything — even a mallard would be good, please — will appear. Then, from somewhere over the soggy merse, a cacophony of gobbling and honking shatters the stillness as an almighty cloud of monochrome geese perform a surprise fly by.
I can’t believe my luck — these are just what I have come to see: some of the 40,000 barnacle geese from Spitsbergen in the Svalbard archipelago in Norway, who every winter fly south to Dumfries and Galloway to enjoy milder climes. I hadn’t expected spotting them to be so easy; up to 15,000 of the population are present at WWT Caerlaverock at any one time, but they are secretive creatures. “Look them in the eye and they will fly off,” centre manager Brian had warned earlier.
This wetlands trust facing the Lakeland Fells is one of three sites in the UK where Svalbard’s entire population of ‘barnies’ are known to winter, alongside Lindisfarne and the Loch of Strathbeg. They arrive in October, having completed the 2,000-mile journey in an impressive 61 hours at speeds of up to 59 miles per hour. One GPS-tagged barnacle known as Braveheart really impressed Caerlaverock’s team by flying non-stop from Spitsbergen to the Solway Coast in just under 48 hours this winter. “He had a strong northerly wind blowing behind him and just went for it,” says Brian.
The gaggle of geese, perhaps 50-strong, now settles close enough to the hide for me to hear the layers of their burbling and yapping, and for my naked eye to observe them. I notice how ornate their patterns are, their long black necks leading to a feathery mosaic of dove grey, cream and charcoal. It’s not their looks that give them their name, however, but their arrival as adults in Scotland. It led to the notion in medieval folklore that they developed from the barnacles found on driftwood.
On the way back to the car park via Caerlaverock’s different observation towers and hides, I pass a pond bustling with birdlife. Alongside barnacle geese, the reserve is home to whooper swans from Iceland, teals, tufted ducks, moorhens, mallards and widgeons. If you keep your eyes peeled, you can also see egrets, otters and the elusive hen harrier. Quacking and hooting tumbles across the salt marshes. A gang of barnies flies overhead, honking and barking jovially. I watch as they disappear into the hazy distance, and then pack away my binoculars, content with a very successful morning’s birdwatching.